Attention economics, social media, and effective marketing

Google finally seems to have found a viable path to social. Twitter has taken on substantial investment for growth. Facebook just released its marketing api for advertising and stories. Mobile usage is up, way up, and Apple’s iPad seems to have filled a need, if not created one. Social is not over, it’s very much here to stay.

And yet at the same time, heavy users are experiencing “feed fatigue.” Google+ works a lot like Facebook (with notable differences, and a distinct culture). Twitter remains a very noisy, highly random, and disorganized river of content. And “there’s an app for that” is really no longer funny. If social tools are the media’s newest medium, the ecosystem is a lot like cable tv. There’s just too many to choose from, too much on, and not enough worth watching.

The age of communication has found its medium. It’s a flow-based network of social arteries pulsating with lifeblood but at risk from the many obstacles that challenge any fluid distribution system: dead ends, eddies, backwaters, floodplains, waterfalls, and dams.

And while it’s good and accurate to call this flow (which mass and broadcast were not), our mental picture of flow is from the shoreline. The metaphor should not be of a river rushing past. Rather, it should be from the bobbing tumbling vantage point of a swimmer barely keeping head above water. If you use the tools, you’re in the flow.

All of this raises an interesting and pressing conundrum to those who would like to use social media to commercial benefit. Marketers, advertisers, coupon distributors, brand managers, event organizers — you name it. Commerce in this medium is challenging. And the reasons for these challenges suggest both promise and risk.

We have heard about the art of listening. About influencers. Conversation and engagement. And these are good and often inspirational guidance if not also insight into how best to leverage the medium. We have used analytics, set metrics, and redesigned campaigns to best get satisfying numbers. But as months and years in social media pass, clarity is as hard to achieve now as ever. A lot of folks still cannot put their finger on what, exactly, they are getting.

Flows do not flow equally. Streams, or feeds, are not the same — tools, target markets, content interests, activities, influencers. The currents driving social capital accumulation and expenditure flow quickly and change location and direction often. It is hard to find targets in flows. Influence alone is often an imperfect measure of a person or group’s social capital — for it cannot fully account for responsivity.

This responsivity of influence is attention, and is the proper measure of influence. Because influence is not owned, but is only a relationship between “influencer” and audience. And this relationship changes, as influencers themselves change their sites of use, their habits and activities, topical interests, professions, and so on. And, of course, as audiences, too, drift towards and away from what interests them.

We see this today, in the rapid population growth of Google+ and the hyperactivity of circling. As users jump into a new current, they aggregate where the activity is. River barges and boat parties, not the stream itself, get attention. Plus 1s, comments, circling and circling back — all are indicators of how this new flow system works. And the nuances and subtleties of social capital accumulation and attention mechanics on Google+ give it unique character.

Marketers do not yet even have the tools by which to observe this activity. Let alone the insights to make accurate observations and distinctions. It’s not yet clear how to appropriately set up and engage in Google+. Nor do we have anything but circumstantial tips and advice yet to go by.

Marketing into the stream presents unique challenges. For not only is it uncertain what impact influencers may have for marketers (it’s the most influential who are perhaps least likely to respond to commercial solicitations), the dynamics of any particular channel present real and material differences. One campaign cannot fit all. Either all kinds of users, or all kinds of streams.

Not only is it difficult to identify and target people and their social graphs or circles, there are also the matters of content interests and activity. People’s interests persist and change, along with who they share those interests with. Clearly, this is informed by the channel or site in which the person is active. Interest sharing on Facebook is different from interest sharing on Google+, and twitter. And who takes up those interests and either engages or shares, differs too. (For that individual’s own reasons.)

And activity varies across channels. Due in some part to users’ past or emerging habits, and in some part to the channel’s own dynamics. So how people interact, contribute, engage, and share differs from site to site, platform to platform. But activity is perhaps more important than influence — for in a medium of flow, the rapids are more valuable than still water.

Analytics and tools, in the meantime, are designed to present marketers and advertisers with some version of what they want to see. Which is, themselves. Mirrored, echoed, shared, cited, linked to, recommended, liked, and purchased. But as long as these activities are presented out of context of the who that shares, the why others reshare, and when and how rapidly activity occurs, these commercial interests miss out on valuable insights.

Flow-based activity centered on individuals, distributed by peers and audiences, and acted upon in social contexts should offer real and meaningful information on brand and product potential. No other medium offers the possibility of witnessing the dynamics of attention prior to consumer decision-making. Nor the social contextuality of that decision-making.

Analytics wants to make the marketer happy and employed. But a raft of metrics that primarily count direct activity on commercial mentions omits social context and presents little to use for the purpose of engagement. Companies will try and sometimes succeed, and do more of what works, learning little about what else could have worked. For that kind of information is not easily rendered — either in brand specific data and stats, or in generic trends.

These are unique challenges but rife with opportunity. The tools do work, and are continually redesigned and enhanced to accommodate marketing and advertising needs and interests. Facebook’s marketing api is an example of this, and is indeed very granular. Google certainly has intentions of its own — and has the merchant relationships to capitalize on. Add to these coupons, on-site and mobile payments, and socialized deal distribution and there should be much more to come.

Just this weekend, in London and elsewhere, crowds used mobile devices to target stores. They assembled faster than the authorities could keep up with them. And descended upon targeted retailers to get what they wanted. Unfortunately, and tragically, they had no intention of buying any of it. But they did prove that our new media can be used to move goods speedily from the storefront to the home.

This medium has different properties. It does not broadcast packaged messaging and imagery like the media of old. Its distribution mechanics are entirely different. And it captures attention and captivates audiences according to dynamics and for reasons explained by people, not messaging.

Mastering use of this medium is an evolving art. Those who have had campaign successes should be proud. It’s not easy. But they should push, too, on the countless products and services populating the marketplace to better grasp and deliver on the medium’s unique qualities. There is more here than can be simply measured. And success, as always, is not in a number.

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